Let’s lead with this: This game is Steffanie’s absolute favorite (so this is going to be even less objective than normal). The game design is good, it’s paced well, it’s neither too long nor too short, the setting is engaging despite being cliché, and they built in an element to maximize its replay value.
Betrayal takes place at a haunted house that you, as the players, are investigating. There are six character movers with six associated character statistic tiles, but the tiles are two-sided with different statistics on each side, essentially giving you twelve instead. The game has a minimum player count of three for reasons that will be explained in a bit. In the first half of the game, you explore the mansion. Moving through the doors causes you to draw a tile at random (or at least semi-random, some tiles have to be on specific floors) to represent that room. Sometimes you draw cards and/or have to make a skill check. The dice for the game are odd—they only have numbers from 0 to 2, meaning each die has an average of 1 instead of 3.5 like a normal six-sided die. Of course, higher numbers aren’t always better.
The game has three decks: Event, Item, and most importantly, Omen. There are exactly 13 Omen cards, and each time one is drawn, the player who drew it has to roll six dice. If the total is less than the number of Omen cards drawn, which on average happens at the seventh Omen, then the second half of the game begins—and that’s where it really picks up.
Betrayal is a cooperative game, and as the title suggests it’s a traitor co-op, but it has a unique twist on the mechanic—the traitor is not determined at the start of the game the way it is in most traitor co-ops. The game comes with fifty scenarios for the second half of the game. Which scenario you get depends on what Omen triggered it in what room, and the traitor’s identity is entirely determined by the scenario. Often it’s the triggering player, but it can be the player to their left, the one with the highest in a statistic, the one with a lowest in a statistic…you get the idea.
It’s impossible to describe the second half of the game because it plays out differently based on the scenario, but there are some similarities. It starts with the traitor player leaving the room and reading the information about the scenario from one booklet, while the rest of the players read from a different booklet. It’s entirely possible for each side to not know the victory condition for the other side, or at least not how they accomplish that condition. After the non-traitor players agree on their strategy, the traitor is called back and turns begin again. The traitor player will often be trying to kill the other players, directly or indirectly, or will at least win if the other players die even if that isn’t their primary goal, but usually they have a different way to win and/or monsters to help them combat the other players. The non-traitor players usually have to make specific skill checks in specific rooms that may not even have been played at the time the second half begins, so the exploration of the house still continues, just with a frantic edge as they try to stay at least one step ahead of the traitor.
It’s the scenario aspect that really makes this game unique and keeps it fresh. It’ll take quite a lot of games before you start getting repeats of the same scenario, and unless you’re playing those games close together you may well have forgotten how to win a given scenario. Betrayal at House on the Hill may be “just” a haunted house, but it’s a haunted house you won’t soon forget.
(The creepy, old-timey radio in the corner crackles to life. A strange, deep voice echoes from it. These must be Austin’s Subversive Comments!)
Betrayal at House on the Hill may be Steff’s favorite game of our collection, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: It’s a better experience than it is a game.
The mechanics of Betrayal are a mixed bag. They do what they set out to do, but sometimes they don’t run the way you would want a game to run. Because of how damage and checks work, there are some haunts that, once revealed, it can be literally impossible for one side or the other to win. I don’t just mean that they have a massive skew, I mean that even doing the math, with perfect dice rolls, this particular “deal” was unwinnable. That’s not something you typically want to see out of a game! Yet there’s a reason this doesn’t matter: because at the end of the day, Betrayal at House on the Hill isn’t supposed to be a crunchy, mechanical game where the decision of what to do on your turn is always important and impactful. It’s supposed to be a Horror Movie Simulator, and to the experience of simulating a horror movie, game balance is a far distant secondary concern.
The most important part of enjoying a game of Betrayal at House on the Hill is to read the cards and, in the end, the entries from the Traitor’s Tome and Secrets of Survival out loud. Have the most theatrical person who would logically deliver such lines do the reading. Let them ham it up, deliver the story slowly. If you look at a card, put it down silently, and say “Okay, give me two dice”, roll them, and announce that nothing happens or “I take some damage” you probably won’t enjoy yourself the way you will if you (and those around you) actually narrate the text you’re given.
And, when played that way, Betrayal at House on the Hill is an excellent experience. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and simulates that horror movie with suspense building as our heroes explore the seemingly haunted house, only to be shocked by the sudden twist reveal of probable betrayal and possible death. It doesn’t matter if the heroes literally can’t survive the toxic, caustic atmosphere of the Alien World the house has been teleported to long enough to send themselves back to their own dimension. It’s a horror story; they can struggle and ultimately fail and die at the hands of the villain. Similarly, if a high-school sweetheart decked out in magic armor with a holy spear can carve through demons and destroy their master like a hot knife cleaving butter, that’s OK too. The heroes win, the story is the important part more than the outcome.
As such, while this is Steff’s favorite game and Austin still enjoys it, it might not be a game for every group or every game night. It is not a replacement for a meaty co-op or a many-versus-one dungeon crawler. It’s really it’s own thing, and you should know better than us who would enjoy it, and who might not.